THE WATCHDOGS: After 10 years, a cop’s killing remains unsolved
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Shortly before 11 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2006, Tom Wood, a Maywood Police Department K-9 officer, responded to one last call before the end of his shift — a problem of some sort by a storefront parking lot.
Turned out to be nothing, so Wood headed off. A colleague working that night figured he was going home.
Instead, Wood drove to Sixth and Erie, an area known for gang and drug problems in the long-troubled west suburb. Sitting in his marked SUV with his police dog Daro in the back, Wood ran the license plate of a Pontiac that was parked on the darkened residential street. And, for reasons still not clear, he called the girlfriend of a reputed Maywood gang member.
Within minutes, Wood, 37, was dead — shot repeatedly by someone who approached from the street and might have been talking to him through his partially opened window before opening fire.
The shooter bolted, and an intense investigation followed.
A full decade has now passed since Wood’s murder. No one has been arrested, and the police appear no closer than they ever were to catching the killer.
There were 48 cops nationwide who were “feloniously” killed in the line of duty in 2006, according to the FBI. Just three of those killings remain unsolved, those of: a deputy sheriff in Sacramento County, Calif., who was shot during a traffic stop; an officer in Puerto Rico struck by gunfire amid a gang shootout; and Wood.
Early on, an entire task force of investigators, many of them from outside the suburb, focused on making an arrest, until they hit a brick wall. Today, Maywood — which, with about 24,000 residents, has 54 full-time sworn officers and is facing difficult times financially — has one detective assigned part-time to the Wood case.
Police Chief Valdimir Talley says there will be a renewed push to solve the case in 2017 — with the expected completion of a re-examination of the evidence that’s been gathered, the prospect of enhanced DNA testing and the possibility of two TV crime shows featuring the case and, Talley hopes, stirring up new tips to solve Wood’s murder.
“I owe it to the family,” Talley says, as well as fellow cops and the community “to bring closure. I’m definitely committed to getting this resolved.”
The slain officer’s widow, Helene Wood, says she’s hopeful but not optimistic the case will be solved any time soon. That’s in large part because, she says, the initial probe ended in shambles: “They don’t really have anything. What are they going to do with nothing?”
The police made plenty of mistakes:
• Bursting into the wrong house without a warrant.
• Allowing an initial suspect to wander the crime scene.
• Storing evidence in Maywood’s flood-prone police station, which ended up getting some of the evidence wet.
• Tearing down wanted posters because of a mistaken notion that a reward had dried up.
• Failing to interview some of the people Wood had seen or called in the days leading up to his murder.
And there were sometimes strong differences of opinion among investigators — in particular between Maywood cops and others on the task force — over suspects, including the reputed Maywood gang member whose girlfriend Wood had called.
Early on, some people questioned whether there might have been someone in law enforcement involved in Wood’s death. Over the years, a number of dirty cops were on the rolls of Maywood’s force —including one officer caught in 2010 stealing money from suspects during a sting. But the possibility of a cop being involved ultimately was deemed not credible.
In recent years, Helene Wood says it appeared that little work was being done on the case.
“The system failed us,” she says. “Maywood was the system.”
An FBI spokesman says his agency is ready to help police in Maywood if requested. The FBI continues to have a standing reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest. And a $100,000 reward is still being offered by U.S. Bank, which has a branch in Maywood.
Maywood’s chief at the time of Wood’s murder, Elvia Williams, now runs the police department in Richton Park. She says of Wood’s death: “I think about it daily.”
“I don’t really know who did it,” Williams says.
But she says she thinks Wood probably knew his killer because he apparently rolled down his window to talk to that person. Then again, she says, Wood “knew lots of people.”
Still, Williams says she’s “optimistic that it’s going to be” solved.
“I’m betting it’s going to be in the next couple of years,” she says.
Randy Brown, the Maywood detective still working the case, says “2017 will be a new push,” and “we’re going to start re-interviewing people” among other things.
Last weekend, about 50 officers, family members and friends of Wood gathered at the murder scene to mark the 10-year anniversary of his death, to remember him and celebrate his life. They lit candles, offered prayers and released balloons into the sky.
That happened against a backdrop of police in Chicago and around the country having come under intense scrutiny for wrongful shootings, racial insensitivity and other misconduct.
Talley referred to the current mood in brief remarks at the vigil, saying, “In light of what’s going on in the country with police officers, this is a time that we need to stand pat, continue to hold our heads up.”
He says Wood was one of the good cops dedicated to “protect and serve” who unfortunately illustrated the dangers of the job.
Wood and his wife were raising five kids. One of their teenage children is now considering a career in law enforcement, Helene Wood says.
“As much as it scares me, I can’t hold him back from happiness and his future,” she says.